The saga of Stokes Croft highlights Bristol’s battle with gentrification

Stokes Croft, May 2016. Image: Getty.

Nowhere is the sharp injustice of gentrification so grossly demonstrated as in Stokes Croft. With its world renowned street art and buzzing local scene, this area is the main fount of culture and creativity, which has propelled the city of Bristol to international fame. For many years, Stokes Croft has been a seat of resilience and rebellion against the inevitable creep of corporate interests into “up-and-coming” areas.

This is a place where locals staged a peaceful sit-in against the opening of a chain supermarket – a protest which escalated into riots when local squatters were evicted by police a few days later. One of Banksy’s first murals – The Mild, Mild West – still remains, a beloved memorial to the ravers who resisted police in the 1990s.

Stokes Croft: creative frontier. Image: KylaBorg/Flickr, CC BY.

But like so many creative hubs before it, Stokes Croft is becoming a victim of its own trendiness. Now, one of the area’s most central hot spots – Hamilton House – is at risk of being redeveloped. In our research on developments in Stokes Croft, we traced the tragic arc of dereliction, rejuvenation and gentrification up to the current moment.

The story so far

It’s hard to imagine Stokes Croft without the hustle and bustle that surrounds Hamilton House. The building has thousands of visitors every day. It is home to The Canteen, a bar, restaurant and music venue which also trains disadvantaged people in the hospitality sector.

The Canteen at Hamilton House. Image: heatheronhertravels/Flickr, CC BY-NC.

It also hosts the Bristol Bike Project, providing bikes and services to underprivileged groups; the Misfits Theatre Company, a theatre and social group led by people with learning disabilities; and many other groups and projects providing everything from co-working spaces to event management.

The success story started in 2008 when the owners of the building, Connolly & Callaghan (C&C), invited a group of local people to come up with a plan for the community to make use of a derelict building in the centre of the high street. At the time, Stokes Croft was notably downtrodden; a place replete with pawnshops and massage parlours. Many people avoided walking through it at night.

Less than salubrious. Image: чãvìnkωhỉtз/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

These people went on to form the community interest company Coexist. Their idea was simple: create the “operating system”, a community interest company, which rents out office spaces to artists, projects and various organisations under market rates. At the same time, necessary renovations and marketing were done by the free work of Coexist volunteers, keen to turn their neighbourhood into a more attractive place.

Since then, Hamilton House has been central to the rejuvenation of Stokes Croft as a cultural and creative quarter, attracting many artists, creatives, charities and entrepreneurs to the building. Coexist has become a key actor in the quarter, alongside the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft and other community groups. It even gained a moment of international fame when it introduced a period policy for female staff.

A valuable asset

Coexist reckons that Hamilton House brings in an annual revenue of around £21m, and is responsible for around 1,260 jobs in the local area. It also provides free spaces, events and exhibitions worth around £100,000 annually to the community.

Coexist’s Community Kitchen at Hamilton House. Image: Ruth Davey/Flickr, CC BY-NC.

By raising the profile of Stokes Croft, Hamilton House has also contributed to rising real estate values in the surrounding area. And now, the owners of Hamilton House are seemingly tempted to cash in. In November 2016, C&C notified the council of their intent to dispose of the building, so that the community asset lock on the property would be removed.

While Coexist has, up until now, always said that C&C have been “sponsors, instigators and landlords” providing essential support for the Hamilton House project, C&C have also benefited greatly from the hard work of the local community. The financial statements for C&C reveal that when Hamilton House was valuated in September 2016, the value of the property had increased by a whopping £3.44m, from £2.1m in 2008 to £5.5m today.

Existing legislation gave Coexist the right to a first bid, but the community interest company has been unable to compete with market rates. Their pretty impressive £5.5m, face-value bid was rejected by C&C in July 2017. Bids ranging from £5.2m to £7.5m have reportedly been made by other parties.

A clouded future

Although conversations continue, fears about Hamilton House’s future run high. C&C have served Coexist with a notice to vacate the building by 11 August. An offer of a six-month recurring lease (with some caveats regarding the middle and back part of the building, which C&C want to develop) is on the table, but it means that Coexist and most of the tenants now lack the security to plan ahead.

A spokesperson for C&C said:

Connolly & Callaghan has supported and assisted Coexist for nearly a decade in its work in creating community. Coexist was brought into being in 2008 because Connolly & Callaghan wanted to create an experimental centre of excellence in sustainable community at Hamilton House, which we have owned since 2004 … Going forward, our intention is to maintain a flexible approach towards the future of Hamilton House. We hope to see Coexist continue its work in community building, and to also see Coexist build its own long-term social, environmental and financial stability.

Paradise lost? Image: jontangerine/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

Coexist and their tenants have made Stokes Croft into a more attractive area with their cultural labour. Here, local values, practices and people have worked to achieve social goods for the whole community, as well as those who visit. Now, the people who lifted up their local communities could be deprived of the fruits of their labour.

Of course, this resilient community is already exploring possible solutions. Coexist and the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft are proposing to use Bristol’s community land trust, to take over the building. This would allow the property to be owned communally, protecting this important infrastructure from market interventions.


The ConversationBut for these solutions to work, regulation must be put in place, to limit the power of real estate owners and to acknowledge those who regenerated the area. Gentrification is often understood as inevitable, but it can also be deeply unjust. It’s time for councils and governments of all colours to recognise the twisted logic of gentrification – which leaves strong and resilient communities at the mercy of private developers – and put an end to it. It’s only fair.

Fabian Frenzel is associate professor in organisation studies at University of LeicesterArmin Beverungen is junior director at the Digital Cultures Research Lab, Leuphana University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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